The sounds and lights were like pins and needles in her skull.
She tried to speak, but all it did was make it more difficult to breath. Vision came back, together with a sense of direction. She was lying down on her back. There were people standing above her and she was sure they were trying to talk to her, but every sound was so loud that together it was more like the roar of an engine. A straw found its way into her mouth. The liquid was cold and tasteless. Little by little every sensation got more muted.
“… was never like that.”
“Look, she’s back.”
The faces of Aisha and Paolo were much too big.
“Can you hear us, Emma?” Aish asked.
She gave a small nod. Aish found her hand and squeezed it.
“You’re ok, you’re going to be fine,” Aish said.
“And a hero, most likely,” Paolo said.
Aish’s hand felt so cold. She tried to squeeze back, but she was like a kitten. It hurt to swallow, but compared to how the rest of the body ached, it was nothing.
“I won?” Emma asked in a whisper.
“The word is that they are calling it, and I’m quoting the translation here, an utterly horrendous self-defeating move worthy of madness.”
Emma didn’t know what to say, but something must have registered on her face, because Aish broke out in a grin.
“For some reason they loved it, or the fact that you managed to kick their Knifemaster in the groin, we’re not sure, maybe it’s both.”
“Did I hurt him?”
“Only his pride, but I think he took it well. Might even have some newfound respect for humans.”
“That would be stretching it,” Paolo said.
“How long was I out?” Emma asked.
“Not long, we are just outside the arena. The ambassador, the others and the Lady are following the script again. They should be finished very soon, and there will be a more private meeting,” Aish said.
Emma wanted to respond, but her eyelids felt so heavy. It would be so nice to close them for a moment. Far away she could hear Aish and Paolo’s voices, but soon they too disappeared.
There was singing.
At first it was only one voice, but it was soon joined by others. Except that wasn’t the right way to describe it. It felt like voices were added, but somehow it also was just one voice. There were no words, but she was certain that the melody was a language in itself. Each new layer added to the complexity of the language. The meaning of it eluded her, but the feelings that came from it reminded her of a lullaby. It was calm and safe. As the last harmony lingered, she thought for a second that she had understood something, but like waking from a dream, it vanished again.
She found herself in a bed.
Her clothes were gone, her body only covered by an almost see-through thin white cloth. She pulled her legs up and put an arm over her breasts in pure reflex.
There was no one else in the room.
Only the door revealed that she was still on a spaceship. The rest of the room looked like the inside of something settlers would build, if they were rich and bored. The walls and ceiling seemed to be combination of wood and clay, not one part of it in the same hue. The lighting came from actual candles, which was insane. She touched the frame of the bed and felt cold stone. Whatever she was lying on, it was very soft and probably organic. A little shudder went through her body. Her clothes were hanging on a chair that could not have been made from anything but bones.
What the hell was this?
She got out of bed and put on her clothes. Her body felt too good. When the implants were put in overdrive, it should have left her with pain for the next week, and there was no way she could have been out that long. No, that simply wasn’t possible.
She went forward to the door.
It was of the same design as she had seen earlier, so there was no doubt as to where she was. The door opened as soon as she came close and made her heart and stomach feel a little too close for comfort. The corridor outside was also empty. It had the same interior decorator as the room, except no burning candles.
Right always felt like the best direction.
There were more doors like her own, but none of them opened as she came near them. The corridor came to an end with a door, and this opened to her presence. Light streamed out of the door and blinded her for a moment.
The translation came. And there she is. The Lady was sitting at the top of a table with Kri sitting next to her. The ambassador and Aish were sitting next to each other, further down on the side, both looking relieved. The Lady stood up and walked towards her.
“They are still worried about you, even though you have improved very quickly,” the Lady said.
“What happened?” Emma asked.
“A young woman got eager, we think,” the Lady said and reached out her hand to Emma.
She took it. The grip was firm and gentle. Kri gave her a slight nod when she looked to him.
“Where is the rest of the party?” Emma asked.
“Some are with some of my people, going over the material we have given you. The rest are back at the ship,” the Lady said.
The Lady gestured to a servant that Emma hadn’t even seen.
“Come, sit and eat a little. You must be famished,” the Lady said.
She should have been.
“Thank you,” Emma said. “How long was I sleeping?”
“Around eight hours,” Aish said, “but some of it might have been a reaction to the medication we gave you.”
“We gave you an injection of nanomeds, but they were aggressively attacked by the nanoes already in your body.”
Aish’s tone suggested that there would be some explaining later. The ambassador didn’t look any more pleased. He probably hated any surprises out of principle. She wondered if the Vanduuls could read any of their facial expressions, or if humans looked all the same to them.
“Your ritual gave us much pleasure, and also gained me much face,” the Lady said.
The ambassador gave a small nod to her, but she wasn’t sure what he tried to convey.
“We wish to give you a small gift. Please accept this ring as a token of our appreciation.”
The Lady received a small box from a servant, opened it, showed it to Kri and closed it again. The servant picked it up and put it in front of Emma. She wasn’t sure, but the way the servant put it down seemed to suggest that the servant was not entirely pleased about serving a human. Emma took the box and looked at the Lady.
“Please open it,” the Lady said.
It was organic and even though it didn’t even look remotely like the music boxes, it still made her think about them. She opened it and on something that looked like a cotton ball, laid a ring that was anything but ordinary. Her experience in the Ark had given her an instinct for old things, and she was willing to bet that this ring had at least seen hundreds of years. She picked it up and saw immediately what was underneath it. The small data crystal was almost invisible in the white material, but it really was the ring that held her attention. It was made of some metal, possible a gold alloy. The band was made of tiny braids interwoven to form a pattern. The setting was simple, but it held some type of stone that Emma had never seen before. And first it reminded her of a very rough cut diamond, but when she looked closer it was like the whole stone was nothing but a container for what was within. She had no idea what she was looking at.
“We call it lava fire,” the Lady said.
It was hypnotizing to stare into it. The name was well chosen. It did look like liquid fire.
“Please put it on,” the Lady said.
Emma looked at the ambassador, suddenly aware of the implications.
“My Lady, I can’t accept this gift. It is too precious.”
The Lady gave a snarl.
“It is precious, and you will have it. This is a gift stone, its color and pattern represents me and mine. It is meant to be given, and to be worn.”
The ambassador once again gave that small nod. So that was what he had meant. She put the ring on her left index finger. It fit perfectly. That type of gift was a double-edged sword most likely. Here, in her house it was a gift beyond value, but it also tied her to Lady. She doubted every Vanduul was in the Lady’s debt. Most likely someone would kill her, just to insult the Lady. Not to mention those who would probably find the idea of a gift ring on a human an insult to all Vanduuls. What was it they said years ago? Never look at a gift robot’s programming.
“Thank you, my Lady. I will wear it with pride.”
“Good, now eat, so you can continue to wear it. And let’s continue our talks. Your friend here was just trying to explain the intricacies of human mating rituals, dating I think she called it. It sounds a very complex game, but it lacks fighting I think. Have you chosen any mate?”
“No, I prefer real fighting,” Emma said without thinking.
The ambassador’s eyes went wide for a moment and Aish couldn’t suppress a smile. The Lady seemed to think on the answer for a little too long.
“As they told me that you are not a normal female being, I assume that you must have difficulty to find the right male to fight with,” the Lady said.
“I’m not a normal female being?”
The ambassador leaned forward with too much haste.
“No, no, what was meant is that your skills are far beyond that of any normal female.”
“Of course,” the Lady said, “but the right mate is important for any female’s growth.”
“I think I can grow just fine on my own, thank you,” Emma said.
The Lady made some sound that the translator ignored.
“You are young. But one day you will find a male to fight with, and realize that you enjoy fighting with him very much,” the Lady said.
“With my luck, I probably end up killing the man meant for me,” Emma said.
“Yes, there is that,” the Lady said and sniffed.
Emma wondered if she was joking or not. Three servants came into the room with more food and for the small amount of time it lasted the silence was just as much appreciated as the food.
Somehow the ambassador got talks back to normal. There were discussions about history, technology and of course future trades. Aish asked if it was possible for her to come back to the Lady later, rather too blunt for Emma’s taste, but the Lady didn’t seem to mind and said it was worth consideration. Emma could feel herself drifting off. She wasn’t tired, but concentrating on anything was really hard at times. At one point she found herself humming and noticed only when they all stopped talking and looked at her.
“I’m sorry, but I feel strange. Did you give me any other medicine? I don’t think I’m supposed to feel like this.”
The last thing she saw was Kri getting up with incredible speed, but even he couldn’t help her head from smacking down hard into the table.